Proposed by a private developer, Tracer Lane II Realty, LLC, the 1-megawatt ground-mounted solar energy system is sited on 30 acres of forested land at the intersection of Route 128/I-95, the Cambridge Reservoir, Lexington conservation land, and a residential neighborhood in Waltham. The project, if realized, would be operated by Solect Energy and connected to Eversource. Developer Harold Nahigian has owned the property for decades and tried in the past to develop an office building on the site.
It is hard to find anyone who supports the project.
Climate change is real. The world needs more renewable power generation resources like solar and wind to provide the foundation for electrification to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Massachusetts is most likely behind in meeting its renewable generation goals. A 1-megawatt addition to renewable generation capacity would help.
However, it is hard to find much support for Tracer Lane. Opposition and concerns have been voiced by Waltham residents in the abutting neighborhood, the City of Waltham, the Waltham Fire Department, the City of Cambridge, the Lexington Fire Department, the Lexington Tree Committee, and Sustainable Lexington Committee, among others. The City of Waltham tried to stop the project through litigation in 2019. Waltham lost.
At the hearing last week, every comment from the public, including a number of public officials from Waltham, voiced opposition. Concerns include the safety of nearby residents with respect to fire, toxic smoke, and high voltage power lines, the impact to the reservoir holding drinking water for the City of Cambridge, the planned removal of nearly 1,000 trees, protection of surface and groundwater quality, and response issues in the event of an emergency such as a fire. The Planning Board concluded that Tracer Lane’s application did not minimize environmental impact, did not adequately protect public safety, did not protect against undesirable impacts on residential property and neighborhoods, and did not protect scenic and natural resource or wildlife corridors.
Planning Board member Robert Creech, who voted against the approval, summed it up: Tracer Lane is “a bad idea,” he said, “with too many negatives and no positives.”
Lexington’s hands are tied
Despite the overwhelming opposition to the project, it would be difficult for Lexington (or Waltham) to stop it. The Town of Lexington changed the zoning of the project site to manufacturing in 2015. A solar energy system is an allowed use in a manufacturing zone.
The Commonwealth has also enabled solar development to advance energy transition goals. In 1950, Massachusetts enacted laws to prevent municipalities from adopting zoning laws that prohibit educational and religious facilities. In 1985, the statutes, known as the Dover Amendment, were expanded to ensure uses such as solar energy would be free from “local interference” except “where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.” Of course, the word “necessary” is subject to legal interpretation. While some opponents of Tracer Lane say it’s necessary to interfere for the sake of public health and safety, Lexington’s attorney suggested that the scales are tipped towards the rights of solar developers.
At last week’s meeting, the Planning Board voted with those constraints in mind, but you could sense their tepid support. The board voiced concerns over the lack of public support for the project, the limits on its ability to impose conditions, and the lack of engagement by the developer.
The board attempted to address concerns by approving the application with extensive conditions – 57 of them. These conditions address a range of issues including requirements to provide extensive landscaping, revegetation, and erosion control measures, and to set back the solar panels 100 feet from residential properties, as opposed to the 50-ft setback in the plans.
This last condition has the potential to derail the project — the applicant refused to agree to the 100 ft setback, arguing that with less space they would have to cut back on the number of solar cells and would not be able to produce 1 megawatt of energy, which would make it impossible to meet their agreement with Eversource.
We have not heard the last on Tracer Lane — or the bigger issue of renewable development
We most likely will hear more on Tracer Lane. A group of Lexington residents is planning to protest the development. The City of Waltham, abutters in Waltham, and the developer all have a number of options, including further litigation, to address their continuing concerns. As the applicant’s attorney said at the end of the Planning Board meeting, “we will be in touch.”
Lexington’s experiences with the Tracer Lane Project are not unique. Similar debates over renewable energy projects are playing out across the country, as detailed in recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. The Tracer Lane project highlights larger issues in our fight against climate change.
· How do we address the dilemma (or “trilemma”) of balancing (1) reducing greenhouse gases, (2) managing the costs, including not only the direct impact on our electric bills but also the environmental and social costs, and (3) making-decisions on local siting, when solar and wind projects take up so much space?
· What economic justice concerns should be included in our decision-making? Should Lexington embrace local solar in our congested town, or support development in more rural and open areas where land is available?
· How do we make decisions on how to use our land? Why should we oppose a 1-megawatt solar project on an industrial site in Lexington while approving tree-clearing housing developments to construct mega-mansions? What good is a 1-megawatt solar project when nearby Hanscom Field is planning an expansion to accommodate more private jets, which will more than cancel out local efforts to reduce carbon emissions?